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Meander B: The Evidence

Meander Area B is located only about one thousand feet east of Area A and one portion of it is crossed by the present Thruway bridge that traverses the valley floor from the north to south side at this location. Unlike areas A and C, Area B is an open meander and its loop was part of the main channel of the Mohawk from at least as early as 1803 and up to 1953, when the river was channelized here to accommodate the construction of the new bridge.

Consideration of this loop in the river as the possible site of the 1730 canal cut rests on two points: first, its basic configuration and size, and second, the assumption that at some point after 1730, and prior to 1803, the meander reopened itself, filling in the artificial cut with flood deposit.

This meander would certainly appear to qualify as a "neck" as it is long and narrow, and the twisting, double-back course a boatman would have to follow in navigating this meander would seem, on the face of it, an inefficient detour in moving from one point to another on this section of the river. It is also southward trending and in a position between the two creeks that very closely matches that shown on the historic maps. One might also assume that since this meander is more extensive than either A or C, it must be a much more obvious candidate as the neck shown so prominently on the 1756 and 1757 maps. Yet if one compares the river channel east and west of this meander , with its even larger loops and turns also confirmed to have existed in the eighteenth century, and then sees that none of these even more salient features of the river have been noted on the historic maps, one can see that the priority given to "the Neck" was more a function of its importance as a navigation feature than of its size.

The section of Mohawk River around Meander Area B, as mapped in 1803.

But the most attractive archeological feature of this meander, and the one that appears to override the fact that the meander is open today, not cut through, is an anomaly seen on the 1948 stereo air photographs27. This appears as a light grey stripe across the "ankle" of this boot-like loop of the river. This feature ran straight across a narrow constriction in the land isolated by the meander and is clearly a depression that has collected and held water for some time each season. The location of this depression can also be seen on modern topographic maps of the meander, which show a break in the elevated interior of the loop at precisely the point suggested by the photographs.

Topography within Area B shows a break that matches the light strip revealed by early air photos.

Field inspection revealed the interior of this neck north of the depression to be very uniform and flat, resembling closely the areas around meander Area A. However, south of this section of the meander the ground is irregular. The location shown on 1948 air photos as a narrow, well-defined swath of low ground across the neck of this meander is today a broad area of irregularity, with numerous shallow excavation pits and backdirt piles produced by what appear to be the cut and fill operations of bulldozers during the construction of the bridge. The old Whitesboro sewer line, constructed in the last century between the Village of Whitesboro and the Mohawk River at the toe of the boot, had to be extended northward when the Thruway channelized the river and cut off the flow to the bottom of the meander.

A map showing both the route of the NYS Thruway bridge (left) and the route of the relocated sewer line (right). Although the construction plans28 show this line running across the old river channel at the western side of the meander , field evidence, including the remains of an elevated brick manhole built up to resist flooding over the meander, suggest a line right up the center of the lower section of the loop. The construction of a sewer line through the area on a north-south alignment, and the construction of an elevated, narrow service road through the long axis of the meander, appear to relate to peripheral construction associated with the Thruway bridge, and make interpretation of the topography in terms of any pre-1953 artificial landform patterns virtually impossible.

In the field near the manhole was found a second transverse depression across what in fact is the narrowest part of the meander. On first glance this more southerly depression fits the image of a short artificial navigation cut. However, it appears to relate, not to any canal construction, but to borrowing of fill for the construction of the elevated service road and the manhole site itself, which is within a fairly substantial mound of earth at least seven feet above the normal ground surface.

Initially it was hoped that since the suspected site of the 1730 cut on this meander was dry and not part of the active river channel as in A and C, an excavated trench across the cut location would reveal subsurface evidence of the canal, subsequently filled by river flood deposits, but preserved by that action as well. Two factors worked against this approach. First, even though the original 1730 excavation might have consisted of little more than a ditch about 20 feet wide and three feet deep, with fairly defined cut sides, the fact that it was not a regulated canal segment, with a guard lock at the upstream end to control flow through the artificial waterway, meant this initial profile would have lasted only a few months. As soon as the river found this short-cut and directed the full force of its flow through it, the profile of the cut would very soon be further expanded by the natural erosive forces of the river and would, within perhaps only one year, take on an appearance and dimension totally indistinguishable from any other part of the natural channel. (For additional discussion of this point, see the appendix.)

At best we could expect subsurface excavation here to only prove whether or not the river ever flowed through this depression, not whether or not a man-made canal was dug here. Since the river, in its natural state, would be perfectly capable of cutting a chute through this neck using only its normal dynamics, such a finding would really lend very little to our proofs. But the possibility of archeological investigation was already preempted by the level of construction impact observed in the test area associated with the 1953 Thruway bridge construction project.

Lacking the ability to excavate across this suspected cut due to modern ground disturbance, we had to look to other field data for evidence - to the geologic configuration of the meander area as a whole.

First of all, in those areas that are outside the construction impact zone, primarily to the north, the topography of the meander suggests a stable condition, with almost no evidence of prior channels or lateral movement. The east channel of the river is deeply cut and well established, with high banks on both sides. The west channel shows some evidence of lateral movement outward from the interior of the meander, but its western banks are also well established and high.

This meander seems to have evolved prehistorically by extending its foot southward for some time, developing an elongation in its wake that became the "ankle" of the meander. At some time, and in an apparently dramatic episode of erosion, the meander cut a balloon-like "toe", probably to absorb some extraordinary energy that could not be handled within the narrow and extremely sharp end of the existing meander . Because the migration of a river leaves a lower plain behind it as it cuts into deeper deposits at its front, this new toe is at a lower elevation than the upper part of the meander.

There is no evidence in the field that conclusively confirms or negates the hypothetical identification of either of the transverse depressions as the site of the 1730 canal. We have to expand our analysis to consider the context within which this neck exists and the context within which a decision to cut through it over 250 years ago would have been made.

First of all, in spite of the narrowness of the neck and the convoluted nature of the alignment, the river appears to have maintained a broad and well defined channel here and would have represented no particular obstacle to navigation, although it would have certainly seemed to be an inefficient course to follow. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would invest the level of time and energy needed to cut through the lower neck just to save a few yards on the open river. To cut the neck to the north, in a location that would eliminate the entire detour and save several thousand feet on the river, would require an excavation of over 600 feet, a task of some magnitude, particularly as there are numerous other points on this river where a shorter cut could have saved significantly more time.

A better candidate for a profitable neck cut just downstream, but one that never was cut until the 20th century. One need only look a mile and a half downstream (east) to find just such a spot, where a large, open meander comes back on itself to within less than 300 feet of its starting point. A savings of almost a mile could have been had with such a short cut, yet it was never made. It is not reasonable to suppose such a benefit would have been ignored while an equal effort was applied here to less advantage.

Before going on to the analysis of our third potential cut site in Area B, it is worthwhile to take a look at another early map, one to which we have not as yet made reference.

This map was drawn in 178429 and covers the property on the north side of the Mohawk River that lies between the "Oriskaney Patt" on the west and "Cosby's Patent" on the east, i.e., our search area. This map provides some detail over the entire run of the river between these two lines, showing the intersection of the Oriskany Creek at the western edge of the map.

A map drawn in 1784 reveals that Meander B remained open. A modern map of the area shown around Meander Area B.

But of particular interest is a pair of loops in the river at the eastern edge of the map, where it abuts the west line of Cosby's Patent. The first loop, moving right to left, is most certainly meant to portray that first, boxy, northward meander of the river just west of the Sauquoit Creek. But following that is a rather pronounced southward trending loop of the channel, constricted at the top, and obviously a feature felt to be noteworthy relative to other features of the river course in this area. On first glance this could be taken to be the meander detailed in the McKay parcel set off in 1770 and showing a southerly loop proven to be the one south of Careys Corners, over 10,000 feet west of Cosby's Patent. However, when plotted by the given map scale of 20 chains to the inch, the loop shown on this 1784 map is under 6,000 feet west of that patent, which places it precisely on the same spot as meander Area B. It is apparent that this meander was open and part of the main channel only 54 years after the construction of the artificial cut at "the Neck," and it is reasonable to assume, therefore, that this meander was not the site of a cut across its extreme top end.

We are left, then, with that mid-point depression of some 350 feet in length across the ankle of meander B. We have little choice but to dismiss this as a possible 1730 canal site based on, if nothing else, the logic of the context of the early eighteenth century project. First of all, a cut here would save only a short distance (less than half a mile, compared to a mile saved with the same size cut at the downstream meander near Utica) and this on a stretch of river with a well established and easily navigated channel. Another neck, almost identical in length, narrowness and configuration, stands upstream, immediately west of the mouth of Oriskany Creek. One would assume this meander (opposite, top) presented the same obstacles to navigation as meander B, yet this neck was not cut.

An even sharper meader just to the west, which was never cut through.We might point to the sharp turn at the toe of the meander at B as a reason for bypassing this point of the river. In this short stretch of the river alone there are three points in the channel with equally sharp turns, and two with significantly sharper turns (see right, and far left on map below), yet none of these were cut, even though each of them could have been with an excavation of no greater length then that required here.

Another map (below), even earlier then the 1784 drawing examined above, not only provides a linkage between the loop shown on the McKay parcel and Area B but also seems to suggest that the full length of the meander at B was open only 40 years after the construction of the 1730 canal. This map, a 1770 plan of these same lands on the north side of the river between "Oriskene Creek" and "Sadaghqueda,"30 clearly shows the loop on the McKay parcel, complete with the flattened angle on its eastern side, and, about one third the way eastward toward Sauquoit Creek, the elongated narrow configuration of Area B, with the high (northerly) loop of the channel entering it from the west, and a lower bend in the river exiting it to the east. Matching the river as portrayed on this map to the river as reconstructed from modern maps is extremely easy, for even small dips and curves that seem to be nothing more than artistic license in the drawing, are revealed to be only somewhat attenuated renderings of the actual curves of the channel as they exist, even down to what might be considered some fairly minor components of the configuration.

A rare map of the research search area between the Sauquoit and Oriskany creeks, as it looked in 1770, reveals that Meander B remained open.

Pending analysis of the final meander at C, we must conclude that Area B evolved to its present configuration prehistorically and has been open since before 1730. It is not a good candidate for a navigation cut. The bends are no more severe than any number of other meanders in the vicinity that were not cut. To effect a reasonable savings in river distance, the cut would have to be made in the northern end of the meander, a considerable excavation. A cut at the narrow neck in the southern portion of the meander would be easier but would only save a minuscule distance on the river.

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